/ 24 June 2022

Why a just energy transition requires seismic surveying

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Two seismic survey ships pulling survey equipment. Seismic survey ships map the subsea geology using the seismic sound produced by air guns towed behind the vessel. (Getty Images)

There! I spotted a second’s-old turtle — a miniature replication of the loggerhead turtles I have come to know and love. I became overwhelmed by the sublime as I reflected on their millennia-spanning journey in and out of the ocean — always to this spot on planet earth. I was camping at Bhanga Nek, an optimistic example of community-led conservation. 

Bhanga Nek seeks to align the protection of turtles with the community’s prosperity. Usually, conservation benefits must be traded off against risks. I believe seismic surveys pose a limited risk to fisheries, the communities which depend on these fisheries, and marine wildlife generally. Yet, reducing natural resource extraction and associated national revenue collection has predictably devastating consequences for the poorest South Africans. 

Below I argue that:

  • Preventing seismic surveying is costly to the poorest South Africans;
  • The evidence of their harm to marine ecosystems is weak; 
  • Extracting domestic natural gas would not directly increase domestic carbon consumption;
  • Even if there is a moderate cost to the climate, citizens of South Africa should still favour domestic extraction, and 
  • Our courts have not found a just balance between the rights of the collective and the rights of identifiable communities. 

Will seismic surveying benefit the average South African?

One in four South African children is so nutrient deprived that they have not grown to their proper height — the physical, cognitive and human capital damage is irreversible. The past decade of income decline and unemployment growth our nation has endured has caused this stunting (compared to exceptional growth in the rest of the world). Consequently, South Africans existentially rely on welfare grants. There is no cheaper way to feed South Africa’s children than to give their mothers the money to do so. 

These grants are costly. To pay for them, revenue must be collected or debt incurred. Revenue collection has declined sharply, in step with the decline in production. Increased taxation will further erode our productivity and future revenue collection as we are on the wrong side of the Laffer curve. This has led the state to take on more debt. Interest payments on debt are the single largest budget line, larger than all public healthcare. The fiscal health of our country is perilous. 

The hero in this story of falling revenue collection has been the commodities boom. Last year, the treasury collected R120-billion more revenue than was forecasted, three times the social relief of distress grant. This unexpected natural resource revenue is likely what allowed the (hesitant and delayed) extension of the grant. With enough foreign exchange, we could even become the next Botswana or Norway. Namibia has recently discovered oil reserves that could potentially double its gross domestic product by 2040. 

Our courts are overturning ministerial granted exploration rights. This increases risk and will reduce long-run natural resource revenue. Already, Sapref is closing explicitly on these grounds.

There is a growing collective delusion that there is no long-run or even short-run value in fossil fuel assets as green tech will outcompete them. This is nonsense, as both current fossil fuel prices and far future bond prices on fossil fuel majors prove. If majors are good at anything, it’s profit maximisation.

Will seismic surveying harm marine wildlife?

Engaging comprehensively with the expert evidence in the seismic surveying court cases is not possible here. Instead, I turn to the public conversation. A panel of seven academics from the University of Pretoria published a piece in The Conversation that claims the evidence of harm to marine wildlife provides a “basis on which to act” to stop seismic surveying. Although this is not court evidence, this team would be considered independent experts of the highest calibre (the three tenured professors alone would suffice). Yet, the seven pieces of evidence they cite do not support their conclusion. 

The first and most persuasive study finds dramatic reductions in plankton populations from seismic surveying. Yet, it does not pass basic tests of scientific rigour. First, the sample was tiny, with only 12 samples in treatment. Second, there was no reduction in the death rate of plankton by distance from the blasts, yet sound attenuates with distance. Third, there is no accounting for or identification of the different speeds at which zooplankton species can swim away, leaving a higher proportion of dead behind. Fourth, there is no correction for spatial autocorrelation.

Now we turn to turtles, so dear to my heart. The Conversation authors describe the review they cite as finding that turtles die from seismic surveys similarly to plankton. Yet, the review concludes no such thing finding merely that caged turtles increased their speed and swam to the surface but were otherwise unaffected; others have reported “no signs of panic or distress”; there is no evidence that the effect of seismic surveys has been distinguished from the effect of the survey ship; various studies show that turtles can hear seismic sounds, but no study has found hearing damage. 

The long completed 3D and 2D surveys, just off the coast where I fell in love with my hatchlings, have had no perceptible effect on turtles or any other marine population.

Next, we turn to whales, the charismatic megafauna, which are purported to suffer most from the surveys. The first study cited is not peer-reviewed evidence but an investigation into an instance of whale strandings in Madagascar. The authors provide exhaustive qualifications to their claims: “There may well be a very low probability that the operation of such sources will induce marine mammal strandings — animals may simply avoid them or even ignore them most of the time” and “This is the first known such marine mammal mass stranding”. Further, the environmental management programme submitted requires the surveying firm to conduct low-volume blasts to give time and warning for whales to move away from the survey vessel.

The next evidence cited makes a stronger claim about the harm of ocean noise to whales. Again, this is not a peer-reviewed study and finds no hearing damage. The bulk of this paper’s analysis is on the harm to whales which either do not regularly occur in our oceans or have abundant populations. Yet, the sentience of whales must be considered and their suffering minimised, as I write elsewhere

Lastly, the authors cite a study on scallops that I will simply quote: “No adverse effects on scallops that could be linked to the 2015 marine seismic survey were detected.”

Almost no country has banned seismic surveying, including those with much stricter environmental laws and politically powerful fishing lobbies. Australia, which protects its Great Barrier Reef and fish stocks as a vital national asset, surveyed more than 15000km of the ocean every three months for years. Norway’s seismic surveying guidelines state that “experience shows that fisheries and petroleum activities can coexist at sea”, guidelines cited by The Conversation authors! If no harm can be identified, there is no standing to bring a case to a South African court. Indeed, the country’s commercial fisheries — which rely on the same fish stocks as the community fishers and have far greater research capacity — did not object to the surveying.

Lastly, the precautionary principle is often misused to support environmental claims. The principle states that under scientific uncertainty, one should err toward reducing irreversible harms. No plausibly irreversible harms to marine wildlife have been demonstrated, while not feeding our children is certainly an irreversible harm. 

Will seismic surveying worsen global warming?

The extra supply of fossil fuels will decrease the world price, increasing the quantity consumed and the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced. However, the same is true of a fossil fuel discovery anywhere on earth. Except here, South Africa gets to reap the benefits. 

There are three reasons domestic fossil fuel production might not raise global carbon emissions. First, we primarily import fossil fuels from the Middle East, Nigeria, and increasingly Mozambique. Beyond these sources’ well-documented sociopolitical and environmental costs, transporting fuel from these areas to South Africa is carbon-intensive in itself. 

Second, natural gas (what is most likely to be discovered from seismic surveys) is often a complement to renewable energy. Natural gas generation reduces the largest cost in a renewable grid, energy storage in batteries. Most renewable energy is collected during the day and requires storage for use at night. Unlike other generators, natural gas generators can bridge this gap as they start up and turn off quickly. 

Third, among fossil fuels, natural gas produces the lowest quantity of CO2 and other air pollutants — by far. 

Whether the marginal reduction in the world price of natural gas will increase CO2 production more than the three aspects above, I cannot say for sure. However, domestic fossil fuel extraction would not directly put another car on the road or build a polluting factory. But it will provide South Africa with a relatively green alternative to our current overreliance on coal and crude.

Does South Africa have an ethical obligation to mitigate carbon production?

Were South Africa to stop producing all carbon tomorrow, the harms to South Africa from climate change would be almost identical — we produce less than 1.1% of global CO2 equivalent, so at most, the country could reduce the harms of global warming to itself by 1.1%. In reality, the potential harm reduction is a fraction of this due to historical emissions.

South Africa should transition only at the margin at which carbon-neutral energy is cheaper than dirty energy (in expectation). Any point before then would be placing the burden of climate change on those who least caused it, are least able to stop it, and who will suffer the most from it. In a country where the absence of energy and electricity is painfully endured by so many, caring for global warming before our people’s prosperity is environmental elitism. We need natural resource tax revenue. We should not sacrifice our children for the world.

Can the public good matter more than losses to identifiable groups?

In matters of justice, harms and benefits aggregate at different levels. Global, national, communal and individual rights are often in tension. I have made the case that at the global level, South Africa’s responsibility is proportional to its capacity to mitigate. At the communal and individual rights level, I have argued there is no reasonable expectation of harm. I have argued that the provision of material rights (food, education, housing, et cetera) to the average South African is substantially supported by the extraction of domestic fossil fuels. 

Even if an identifiable group of people’s rights are curtailed, rights are always traded-off against each other. Some level of fundamental rights provided to the public good should render this rights trade-off as just. This is a tragedy of small but concentrated losses against large but diffuse benefits.

I believe our courts err by too frequently supporting individually identifiable rights claims at the expense of the worst-off South Africans. Economic growth reliably alleviates suffering more readily than judgements upholding individual or communal rights. China is a regrettable example of how suffering can be reduced en masse, with more than 68 000 people escaping extreme poverty every day for 30 years, without commensurate human rights protections.

There is an important historical reason for the bias towards identifiable groups. During apartheid, there was no instantiation of the democratic will of the people, for the government was not democratic. Liberal jurisprudence developed around protecting groups of people against the state’s authoritarianism, which is evidently vital. However, we are not in apartheid — we are not China — we live in an underappreciated democracy. 

The legal case against surveying is being argued on the grounds that “affected” communities have been inadequately consulted as there has not been “effective engagement of minds.” Yet, how can the public, the ultimate victim in these cases, be consulted on our shared natural resource endowment other than through democratic process? Our children must not be sacrificed for the world. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.